Conley-Maass Renovations Blend Old with New as Building Prepares to Open Doors to Newest Wave of Rochester Innovators

The process of restoring the Conley-Maass Building, 14 on 4th Street SW, required a sprinkling of detective work and a heaping of patience according to Adam Ferrari, local architect with 9.SQUARE, an architecture and community design firm.

Ferrari said that much of the building, especially the second floor, was actually a fire hazard when local couple Traci and Hunter Downs purchased the space in January 2016.  There was only one entry and exit to the second level, and it was through the adjacent building.  The space was littered with exposed wiring and power strips.  Much of the building’s original structure was covered up for ease of maintenance or to hide rot and decay.

Because of the storied history of innovators within the building, not the actual architecture of the complex itself, the Downses successfully had the Conley-Maass Building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The couple was able to apply for historic rehabilitation tax credits toward restoration of the structure, a first for the city of Rochester and Olmsted County. 

Inclusion on the National Register did come with some restrictions.  Any addition or change to the building had to be compatible with the original intent of the structure.  Ferrari explained that the team received only eight total changes to their original plan from both the state and government, none of which impacted the design.  The process ended up being surprisingly straightforward.

Ferrari explained that the overall renovation design was very intentional.  The building itself is a contrast of old and new elements, meant to be obvious in some places, but subtlety and skillfully blended in others.  Ferrari and the team kept the design simple and flexible.  They consolidated infrastructure to create open spaces to facilitate maximum natural light flow through the multiple windows and lay lights.

“We tucked all the small, articulated rooms into the middle as much as we could, so we could leave the opposite ends open for [the business incubator] Collider, the [Bleu Duck] restaurant, the event space, to be just big, open spaces,” Ferrari explained.

The design was meant to change as the construction and renovations progressed.  “Buildings are meant to be adaptable.  They’re not meant to be pieces of art.  They’re meant to be things that we live in, and augment, and modify,” Ferrari said.

New interventions to the building, which needed to be different from the original structure, were made to be different in a very intentional way.  For instance, the bathrooms were modernized, but even that boundary was pushed.  The bathrooms have sleek, elevated, rectangular sinks, 100% recycled paper countertops, and the newest rendition of the more empowering handicapped logo.  New infrastructure was implemented to comply with modern building codes, like steel beams in the basement.  An elevator and kitchen hood, among other modernizations, were carefully inserted.  But these additions were restricted to a compact, vertical column stretching the whole way from the basement to the second floor, leaving a small footprint on the original design.  Even the massive amount of air required for the kitchen equipment were squeezed into this column.

Much of the existing structure was reused or repurposed in some manner, making it feel more comfortable and natural, Ferrari explained.  A beam from the basement, destined for the dumpster, was wrapped in lights and set as the centerpiece in the first floor conference room.  Subflooring and wood joists were reused to construct the stairs from the first to second floor.   

When an element of the building did need to be replaced, it was matched and blended as closely as possible to the original structure.  For example, the wooden platform in the storefront had been removed at some point.  The team carefully reconstructed the platform from old photos taken from across the street.  Most of the existing windows in the building were missing or deteriorating and were exchanged with carefully matched, thermally efficient windows.

In some instances, the original structure of the building was exposed for the first time in decades, but was in much better shape than Ferrari expected.  It just needed to be uncovered and receive a healthy dose of elbow grease and ingenuity.  Four layers of flooring were peeled away to reveal beautiful, intact, original hardwood.  The north and west external brick façade was covered in layers of paint that had to be stripped off and the brick carefully cleaned.  The first floor ceiling was coated in paint and spray foam.  Four techniques were used to finally remove all the residue and expose the original wood underneath.  Pristine prism glass in the store front was uncovered and cleaned and are now preserved and protected by a glass panel.  The second floor ceiling was surprisingly intact.  The entire tongue and groove wooden ceiling, lay lights and all the original skylight windows were undamaged. 

This juxtaposition and blending of old and new goes beyond the structure of the Conley-Maass Building.  Over one hundred years of innovation has occurred under this roof. 

“[The building] is an old thing that was built for a certain purpose that we are repurposing with new technology, and businesses, and new ideas,” said Ferrari.

This building has stood as a pillar of entrepreneurship and innovation since its conception.  Now a new group of innovators and risk takers will call 14 on 4th home and have their stories told within its walls.